Achieving better outcomes for the troubled family of local government

In this debate, Simon Parker (NLGN), Catherine Staite (INLOGOV) and Tony Bovaird (INLOGOV) agree that the current state of UK local government is unsustainable – but see different routes to rescuing a sustainable future.

Simon Parker

The UK is currently renegotiating its social contract. You could be forgiven for not having noticed. After all, our national politicians don’t really want to talk about it. But at the local level this debate is impossible to avoid: councils will either have to invent the next generation of government or find themselves one nostril above the waterline.

So far, so consensual. The big challenge lies in whether and how a positive kind of change might happen, and this is perhaps where recent work on the future of local government differs most strikingly. The more hopeful scenarios in INLOGOV’s recent report with Grant Thornton (2020 Vision: Exploring finance and policy future for English local government) rely heavily on changes from Westminster. They ask for a major recalibration of the central/local relationship as the only way to preserve local public services.

This is a risky strategy. It is far from clear that any government in 2015 is really prepared to take the kind of radical action that would be necessary to put local services on a sustainable footing.

How would a new localist settlement reach the political agenda? Do we really believe the English question is a powerful-enough driver, especially when the agenda has been shunted into either the watery promise of a constitutional convention or English votes for English laws?

Isn’t more incremental muddle still the likeliest outcome? It would have been interesting to see INLOGOV’s report puzzle this one through in more detail.

This is not a counsel of despair. My own recent work is optimistic about the potential for a combination of incremental national change combined with rapidly accelerated local innovation to drive the creation of a new way of doing local government. I don’t pretend this will happen evenly across the country. Innovation never does, especially in a society where resources and opportunity are so unequally distributed.

But we only need a few authorities to make the breakthrough to a new mode of operating so they can show others the way. Waiting for the centre is far riskier.

Simon Parker is director of NLGN. He started his career in journalism and has since worked in management consultancy, lobbying and research, most recently as a fellow at the Institute for Government. Simon has published widely on public service reform in the UK and internationally.

Tony Bovaird

The 2020 Vision report suggests that only ‘disruptive innovation’ can save the English local government system. However, it also gives plenty of evidence that neither central government nor most local authorities are likely to be keen on disruptive innovation in practice – and some local authorities wishing to espouse it may turn out to be no good at it. The report also stresses (p.32) that ‘any new system is likely to fail if it is imposed upon a local government sector which does not agree with its broad outline’.

So disruptive change is needed, is likely to be resisted and cannot successfully be imposed externally. This is a bleak picture. However, there appears to me to be one get-out available – giving real ‘localists’ their head.

The whole point of local government is that it should be locally different, so that it can be locally appropriate. ‘Locally appropriate’ carries a price, of course – it means that locally appropriate resources need to be available, in order that locally appropriate outcomes are achieved. This is the question that has to be solved in order that we have ‘locally different’ local government. Because we DON’T have ‘locally different, locally appropriate’ local government, it is no surprise that the public doesn’t know much about local government, nor care much, nor protest at the current evisceration of councils.

So, let’s design a pathway to ‘disruptive innovation’ that does not rely on policy wonks in Whitehall. Let’s give to local authorities wishing to be really ‘localist’ the right to a local tax (perhaps they should be allowed to choose local income tax, local sales tax or local mansion tax?). And let’s give them the right to pool their budgets with other local public service agencies, to share data with any other local public service agency and to use their budgets to take compulsory short-term leases (at low rents) on any properties (housing or commercial) in their area which have been empty for more than a year.

In this way, the full power of local resources (not just local council budgets) would become available to local government.

And how should these ‘really localist’ local authorities be chosen? Well, not by Whitehall, for sure. Nor by any central mechanism (such as the LGA nominating some of its members). No, let residents decide – any local authority should be allowed to go down this route if it gets support in a local referendum.

tony-bovaird-Cropped-110x146Tony Bovaird is Professor of Public Management and Policy at INLOGOV.  He worked in the UK Civil Service and several universities before moving to the University of Birmingham in 2006.  He recently led the UK contribution to an EU project on user and community co-production of public services in five European countries, and is currently directing a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council on using ‘nudge’ techniques to influence individual service co-producers to participate in community co-production.

Catherine Staite

We have a settlement which is the most centralised in the world. There are two sides to the balance of power between central and local government and two things have to change – local government needs to take back some powers, including over local taxation, but central government also needs to let go.

My heart lies with local government but my head observes that it has not yet made a compelling case for devolution – from the risk averse perspectives of Whitehall and central government. So what are the factors which would encourage and enable Whitehall to let go?

The first one must be demonstrable competence. Local government can make a good case that they are pretty good at what they do. Of course, bad things do happen and sometimes lessons aren’t learned, resulting in serial failures. These instances get into the news because they are so rare. All major failures involve other agencies but local government often ends up holding the blame instead of getting recognition for what it is very good at – holding the ring in a complex system of public services.

Sadly, the effective financial management, reliable service delivery and inspired leadership of place, which characterise the majority of local authorities, doesn’t make the news. You just don’t see ‘residents reasonably happy’ as a news headline but perhaps more public recognition by central government of local government’s competence would help to strengthen mutual trust.

The second one would be a coherent, agreed approach on the shape of local government in the future, but we are a long way from that. The competitive habits of some county councils – arguing that county unitaries are the only way forward for two-tier areas – have generated more heat than light as well as flying in the face of the evidence success of a number of long running collaborative arrangements between districts.

The process of agreeing the boundaries and then creating the 2009 unitaries was fraught, in several areas, with the worst sort of behaviour but Combined Authorities have now begun to demonstrate just what can be achieved when old rivalries are buried and everyone is focusing on the future not the past. This suggests that collaborative, rather than competitive approaches will deliver a brighter future for local government. That would be better for everyone, as counties seem to forget that, in a change to unitary status, they would also be abolished. In the elections following the creation of the 2009 unitaries, former district members did better than former county councillors.

The third useful thing would be democratic re-engagement. Of course, it is hard for members to engage with their residents when the residents can see quite clearly that most important things, like how much money the council has, are decided a long way away in Whitehall. That would change if we had some devolution but, in the meantime, there are a lot of things which could be done now. The profiles of elected members in terms of age, ethnicity and gender don’t match the communities they serve. This is the result of two significant failures, that of political parties to invest in the recruitment and development of excellent and diverse candidates and that of many members to adapt to the modern world. A lot of complex and challenging questions remain unanswered, including what level of allowances would enable someone who has not already retired on a good pension to become a member.

Members often resist becoming involved in development activities and using new technology, but unless they have the skills to become more strategic and make better use of their time, they’ll be presiding over the councils which are sliding from ‘a nostril above the water’ to being completely submerged.

Catherine StaiteCatherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

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